News Release

How Milton Friedman Aided Segregationists in Quest to Privatize Public Education

NANCY MacLEAN, nancy.maclean@duke.edu

MacLean is William H. Chafe distinguished professor of history and public policy at Duke University and author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.

Her new study for the Institute for New Economic Thinking is: “How Milton Friedman Aided and Abetted Segregationists in His Quest to Privatize Public Education.”

The essay reveals how the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman allied himself with southern white efforts to defy the 1954 Supreme Court decision barring racial segregation in U.S. public schools. The iconic American academic hoped that the segregationists would advance his crusade to end public schools in the U.S. with vouchers for private schools.

“Friedman and his allies saw in the backlash to the desegregation decree an opportunity they could leverage to advance their goal of privatizing government services and resources. Whatever their personal beliefs about race and racism, they helped Jim Crow survive in America by providing ostensibly race-neutral arguments for tax subsidies to the private schools sought by white supremacists. Indeed, to achieve court-proof vouchers, leading defenders of segregation learned from the libertarians that the best strategy was to abandon overtly racist rationales and embrace both an anti-government stance and a positive rubric of liberty, competition, and market choice.”

MacLean concludes by bringing the story up to the present. “The sad fact of the matter is that improving education was never the true reason for free-market fundamentalists’ embrace of vouchers. As Friedman signaled in his first 1955 manifesto and argued for over a half century, school ‘choice’ was a tactic. The strategy it served was to ultimately stick parents with the full cost of their children’s schooling and the labor of finding and arranging it.

“He was as frank in addressing a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) four months before his death in 2006. Said Friedman: ‘the ideal way [to give parents control of their children’s education] would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.’
“That,” writes MacLean, “is what today’s billionaire libertarian backers of vouchers, with Charles G. Koch in the lead, are keeping from the unsuspecting parents on whom the cause relies for electoral success, now Black and Latino as well as white.”